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Philly school board gives reprieve to struggling charter school

The Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School in Southwest Philadelphia had been on track to close after repeated drops in test scores. But the school board gave it a deal to save on legal costs.

Larry Jones, CEO of Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School. The Philadelphia Board of Education just approved a deal to keep the struggling school open.
Larry Jones, CEO of Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School. The Philadelphia Board of Education just approved a deal to keep the struggling school open.Read moreMICHELLE GUSTAFSON / For the Inquirer and Daily News

Over the objections of charter school critics, a low-performing charter school in Southwest Philadelphia that had been on track to close has received a second chance from the school board — with caveats.

Under an agreement approved 5-3 by the Philadelphia Board of Education Thursday night, the Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School could remain open through 2021. But as part of the deal, it agreed to surrender its charter if it doesn’t improve student test scores this school year and next and meet other conditions.

District officials said the surrender clause would avoid prolonged non-renewal proceedings. Christina Grant, interim chief of the district’s charter schools office, told school board members that litigation costs could run between $250,000 and $500,000.

The agreement marked yet another point of friction between supporters and opponents of charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run. The school district authorizes the city’s 87 charter schools, which enroll about 70,000, or one-third of Philadelphia public school students.

In recent years, charter advocates have accused the district of hindering the schools through excessive regulation and holding charters to unfair standards. Critics say it’s diverting money to schools that aren’t necessarily performing better, at the expense of the rest of the district.

Rather than spending money on litigation, Grant said at a meeting last week, “we would hope the school would spend all of its time pouring [resources] into the continued improvement of the school."

Yet “there is nothing that can completely stop them from trying to go to court,” the district’s general counsel, Lynn Rauch, told board members. “Believe me, I wish we could do that.”

If the school did sue, Rauch said, the district would have a “very strong defense. ... The process should run much more quickly and smoothly and less expensively.”

Richard Allen CEO Larry Jones said in an interview this week that he couldn’t comment on whether the school would go to court to stay open.

“The only thing we’re considering right now is whether we meet the targets that have been put forward,” said Jones, a recent president of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools. A lawyer for the school, Pat Hennessy, did not return messages seeking comment Friday.

The school, which enrolls students in grades 5 through 8, has been on shaky footing for years. District officials in 2015 recommended it be renewed for just one year, after it posted declining math and reading scores in consecutive years.

Its problems continued. In 2015-16, just 3 percent of its students were proficient in math, based on standardized test scores. It scored below other district, charter, and peer schools on those tests, and failed to meet state standards for growth. In 2017, the School Reform Commission voted to begin the process of not renewing the school’s charter.

The next step would have been holding hearings, which can span weeks. Following the hearings, the school board would have had to vote on its renewal. Then Richard Allen would have been able to appeal.

Under the agreement approved Thursday, the school will have to raise its math and English language arts scores by 8 percentage points in the current school year and next, and its science scores by 4 percentage points. If it doesn’t, it must meet state academic growth standards in each subjects in both school years. It must also meet conditions for organization and finance.

David Hardy, a charter school advocate who had been prepared to speak on Richard Allen school’s behalf at hearings, called the agreement “a smart way to handle a difficult problem."

“It got everybody out cheap, it didn’t let Richard Allen go. It gives us a much better sense that the charter office isn’t just out to be a hatchet man,” Hardy said in an interview.

But charter critics who spoke at Thursday’s meeting argued that the agreement failed to hold the school accountable for its past performance. They urged the board to reject the deal, calling it a “litmus test” for the new members appointed by Mayor Kenney to take back control of the city’s schools from the state this summer.

"The double standard of propping up failing charters while starving district schools of resources has got to stop,” said Karel Kilimnik, of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools.

Several of the five board members who voted for it expressed ambivalence.

Angela McIver said that in the late 1990s she participated in the Black Alliance for Educational Options and became “a believer in charter schools," unburdened by bureaucracy. Yet the data at Richard Allen are "alarming,” McIver said.

“I believe this school should close,” McIver said. However, she said that because Richard Allen hadn’t lost enrollment, she would vote for the agreement, believing that closing the school could hurt the community.

To parents at the school, McIver said, “your children can achieve more. Your children deserve more.”